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The changing role of the Middle East CIO

CIOs in the Middle East have the skills that could make them CEOs – and technology's growing importance in the enterprise makes this increasingly likely

CIOs across the globe have the opportunity to reach for the CEO position if they hone their leadership skills, according to a recent study from Deloitte.

As software services and cloud computing dominate the IT landscape, CIOs have embraced technology as a business transformer, rather than just a utility.

This year’s Deloitte survey polled 1,200 technology leaders in 43 countries and highlighted some of the common challenges facing them. According to the findings, they face ever-expanding job specifications that demand strategic thinking, agility and the need to constantly to keep up to date with the market.

According to experts in the Middle East, the trend of CIOs transitioning into organisational leaders is equally pronounced in the Gulf, despite the region’s status as a developing market.

For example, Shams Hasan, enterprise product manager for Dell Middle East, said many CIOs already had many of the right skills and experiences needed: “Regional CIOs need to consider the right IT solutions to transform and refine their business processes, at the same time they protect their organisation and customers, comply with regulations and enable the business and the workforce to adopt next-generation technologies faster than the competition.”

Meanwhile, former IT managers are undergoing a steep learning curve amid a regional software services revolution, according to Biswajeet Mahapatra, research director at Gartner Middle East: “CIOs used to be IT managers. They basically ran a data workshop and were very operational in their approach. Now CIOs they are realising that they need to be much more strategic in their goals to help their organisations meet business objectives.”

He said that, while the importance of CIO input is gradually being realised, the value placed on the role depends on the incumbent individual. “Companies will consider the CIO’s ideas at the top table, but this approach is at a transitional level and the CIO will need to become trusted and make their value known first.”

Steep curve for aspiring IT leaders

According to Mahapatra, while Western CIOs have traditionally been pioneers for their changing job spec, for Gulf CIOs it is a matter of learning quickly while transitioning from IT implementer to business strategist.

For the Gulf’s former IT managers, the leap to IT director or CIO is substantial. In a rapidly growing and dynamic environment such as the United Arab Emirates (UAE), for example, companies rely on their CIOs to deliver business innovation, agility, scalability and security to compete.

Samer Mayani, IT director of Abu Dhabi-based investment conglomerate KBBO Group, said his role is being redefined with the current wave of digitisation, mobility and cloud systems.

“The UAE has one of the largest mobile adoption rates per capita and is very quick in adopting all the latest developments. Although these technologies have been in place more than a decade, adoption is now happening at the core infrastructure level.”

Mayani believes that CEOs now require very different traits and skill sets in their CIO hires, compared with five or ten years ago.

“To an extent, CIOs are refraining from talking about hardware, servers and operating systems and instead focusing on designing solutions that will not only address business user’s needs, but will do so very effectively and at a greater speed while ensuring greater protection and security to organisational critical information assets.”

Read more about enterprise IT in the Middle East

Speak the language of business

This explanation from a prominent local IT director echoes the view of Quorcirca analyst Clive Longbottom: “The modern CIO has to be far more of a business-led advisor, getting involved as early as possible in the discussions around the overall systems and present them back to the business in terms it can understand. This will not involve speeds and feeds but, instead, what the system offers in terms of cost reduction, risk reduction and value improvement for the business – and over what time periods.”

Mayani agreed that identifying and balancing the right mix of IT at an optimised cost per user – while ensuring that the technologies don’t become obsolete – is the most challenging aspects of his job.

Mayani, who manages technology solutions for five of KBBO Group’s divisions – including investment, energy, real estate, IT solutions and general trading – said he is increasingly party to management discussions, formally or informally, while drawing up the business strategies and decisions which include a major IT component.

He said: “Organisations are no longer ignoring IT and are increasingly aware of its importance and role in the running of their businesses. CIOs are increasingly playing the role of guide, influencer and suggesting ways to improve overall business performance.”

To succeed in the Gulf’s fast paced business environment, Mayani recommended local CIOs keep their skills and knowledge updated to meet the increased expectations of varied user communities.

He said CIOs need to acquire financial and management skills to foresee the implications available technologies will have on businesses and stakeholders.

But, perhaps most importantly, Mayani advised on the intangible qualities required of today’s CIOs: “They need to build on their interpersonal and leadership skills to earn a lifetime’s respect from their peers, even as the rest of their skills keep on changing with the times.”

Read more on CW500 and IT leadership skills

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